With hundreds of items demanding our attention at any given moment, leaders often struggle managing larger, longer-term projects. Here’s how to better manage your time and tasks.

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In a given day, you likely process dozens, or even hundreds of requests and tasks. From plowing through your inbox and managing the activities that creates, to responding to an unplanned “fire drill” that requires that you drop everything and focus on a time-sensitive activity, the day-to-day can quickly become all-consuming. 

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While the ability to quickly refocus and deal with whatever matter is at hand is laudable and an important skill for leaders, an ability to plan and execute longer-term objectives is what separates a good manager from a true leader. Leaders can respond to the rhythms of the day, but also plan and gradually advance a strategic agenda, whether it’s a multi-year roadmap or a complex personal goal.

Like most aspects of leadership, this is generally a learned and practiced behavior. Just as even the most naturally gifted athletes require constant training, so, too, do leaders need to actively cultivate and practice the skillset required to successfully plan and execute long-term projects. Here are some tips and skills to build your strategic planning and execution muscles.

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Get it on paper

Perhaps the biggest challenge to executing on a complex, long-term objective is getting started. Each of us has dozens of half-baked ideas floating around in our heads, from work-related projects, to complex strategic initiatives, to personal objectives and goals. We usually have grand intentions to start executing these projects one day, but that day never seems to arrive.

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The first step toward actually realizing these grand plans is to get them captured and consolidated. Just as a general needs a map of the battlefield before he or she can plan a complex military maneuver, so, too, do you need the lay of the land of what you’d like to accomplish, even if the objective is as vague as “get in shape” or as specific as “upgrade social media analytics tool for March launch.” As part of my workflow, I keep a list of potential projects in my Todoist-based task planning app.

The moment an idea creeps into my head that’s going to involve more than a couple of steps, I capture it in a list called “Potential Projects.” This simple action is quite liberating in that it’s an actual, concrete step toward completing the project, and it also gets the idea out of my head, freeing some “mental real estate” for other tasks.

Triage and trash

With every potential project captured, from critical work-related projects to half-baked, harebrained ideas, you can start the work of triaging, planning, and potentially abandoning projects. I suggest that at least once each week, you take a look at your Potential Projects list, and for each item, follow one of these steps:

  1. If you’re going to start work on the project in the near future, create a new category in your task list for that project. As the very first task in that list, add “Plan next steps for Project X” and book some time on your calendar to start planning.
  2. If the project is something you’d like to do but will not start in the next 90 days, add it to a “Someday” list that you revisit every month or so.
  3. If after some consideration, the project isn’t something you’re willing to undertake, consider whether you want to modify the project, or you want to trash it and eliminate it from your list and your consideration set. This simple action is surprisingly liberating; you captured an idea, gave it focused consideration, and decided not to complete it.

Plan for the next actions

Once I’ve decided to undertake a project, whether it’s from my Potential Projects list, or something I’ve pulled out of the “Someday” category, I’ll create a task to dedicate some time to planning the project. During this time I’ll list the big chunks of work that are needed, and then focus on the first chunk that I’ve articulated. I’ll consider what concrete actions I can take to work toward that milestone, and list two to six actions that can be completed in less than one hour. These actions could be as simple as sending an email, reading an article, or drafting a slide, but the ultimate objective is that I’ve now articulated a simple, appropriate action that I can take to advance that project. This action is imminently doable, and turns an imposing and seemingly insurmountable project into something that can be completed quickly.

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The concept of the “next action” is one I borrowed from the excellent book Getting Things Done by David Allen. Each morning I’ll scan my list of projects and add a tiny activity related to each project. Over the course of several weeks, those small actions add up to completing larger milestones, and ultimately completing the project.

There are dozens of bromides about eating elephants or turning millstones, and they all capture the immutable fact that simply moving toward an objective, even with the smallest of steps, is a superior alternative to thinking, dreaming, and in many cases, dreading the longer-term projects that we all have competing for our attention.

Try this technique for your next project, whether it’s work-related, a home improvement project, or a personal improvement goal. Like many things in life, this will require diligent application to become a habit, but it’s one that can dramatically improve your leadership and management abilities, and transform you into one of those rare people who can conceive a vision, and then bring it to life.

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